Notes on democratic fundamentalism
Posted on 22:48, June 9th, 2011 by Lew
Perhaps I’m reading a bit much into Jordan Carter’s declaration that he’s a libertarian socialist — as he said on the tweets, “it’s just a pun, an oxymoron. Which I found amusing”. So I may be overreacting in the particular case, but if you’ll forgive that, it’s made me look at and consider my own perspective in a way which lends itself well to writing down.
I think Jordan is cherry-picking his definitions; co-opting two existing pieces of fashionable terminology for the sake of provocative pretension. I think what he’s described is really just liberal-social-democracy of the relatively ordinary modern kind — a pretty far cry from anything resembling either libertarianism or socialism in actual history — and I don’t see what’s gained by smacking an ill-fitting label on it. But there’s a fair bit to lose. For a start, by doing so you alienate all those who really do call themselves libertarians and the socialists (though perhaps that’s not a great loss).
Moreover, as a matter of political branding it’s braindead. By applying what is, unjustly or not, heavily loaded and controversial terminology to what is actually a thoroughly mainstream political movement you risk marginalising it. ‘Socialist’ and increasingly ‘libertarian’ are markers of political extremism, at least in the Anglo world. They breed mistrust and fear, and rightly so: you can carry on all you like about how the horrors of 20th Century socialism and communism weren’t worthy of the names, but the fact is those were the names which stuck. They’re beyond reclamation. (I’ve argued this before, and I understand it’s not a line which is popular with wishful socialists, and you’re free to disagree — but I’d prefer not to argue the toss at too much length again; it’s really a sidebar in this post.)
‘Libertarian’, although Ayn Rand hated the term and its baggage, has been similarly redefined from its original usage by her heirs, and the authoritarian-conservatives who are busily colonising that movement (Tea Party, UKIP, ACT etc; collectively I call them ‘liberthoritarians’). Association with that lot is anathema to social democracy and left praxis of any sort. On the other flank you have the link with anarchism, whose symbolic currency among the social mainstream to whom a political vehicle like the Labour party must appeal is little better.
That’s all really just a preamble, though, to the following more important bit of the post, which is about my own rather amorphously-defined political perspective (bearing in mind that this is also a massive topic which I hope do deal with in about a thousand words and a couple of hours). The reason I think it’s daft and a bit pretentious to adopt titles like ‘libertarian socialist’ is that I’m less interested in what people declare to be their philosophy and more interested in the mechanisms they choose to promulgate that philosophy. Being a “socialist” or a “libertarian” or whatever else is one thing, but if your commitment to achieving the aims of your chosen creed is via democracy, that implies a commitment to fulfilling the expressed wishes of your society whether or not they accord with your own. If the electorate really does decides it wants a full-scale neosocialist agenda and votes in a government which will deliver it, a genuinely democratic libertarian movement will not impede the progress of such an agenda except by legitimate legal means; and by the same token, if the electorate seriously votes for the neutering of government and the implementation of a social-Darwinist Nightwatchman State, then a genuinely democratic socialist movement will grudgingly accede to that. The trouble is that many, if not most, libertarian and socialist movements are only democratic movements insofar as democracy is convenient.
Although I think I have previously disclaimed the title, I am essentially a democratic fundamentalist — I consider the commitment to democracy to undergird the rest of a political-philosophical agenda, rather than sitting on top of it. The reasoning is a mix of principled and pragmatic arguments which I’ve also made many times before, mostly derived from uncontroversial old-fashioned liberalism — that people have the right to determine the shape and nature of their society (right or wrong), that the government must answer ultimately to the governed, that there’s no other proven method of ensuring smooth, regular and nonviolent power transfer, and so on. For these reasons I have no truck with non-democratic movements on either side of the aisle; the authoritarian socialists who killed a millions in the last century, or the modern-day liberthoritarians who call for the violent overthrow of legitimate governments with which they happen to disagree, or those who argue that democracy is broken because voters make ‘bad’ choices (with the inference that, for society’s sake, the power to make such choice should be stripped from them).
Such movements don’t hold with democracy; they may tolerate democracy as long as it gives them results they like, but democracy doesn’t work that way. You take the bad with the good, on the understanding that you will have the opportunity to win back the fort and set things to rights again, if you can persuade the electorate that you’re worth supporting. So to merit consideration as a legitimate political movement, this commitment to democracy is a necessity. And to a large extent such a commitment — assuming bona fides can be demonstrated — is sufficient to grant legitimacy. For this reason, as much as I despise the ACT and New Zealand First parties, for instance, I do accept that they have legitimacy inasmuch as they generally conform(ed) to and support(ed) the robust, existing democratic norms of society. Regardless of the policy mix which sits on top of it, I can tolerate a genuinely democratic movement because in a robust democracy, you should only get away with doing what the electorate permits you to do.
Explained this mechanical sort of way it’s a naïve view, but to be useful, notions such of these do need to be considered in light of what lies beneath. Determining whether a given system constitutes a democracy worthy of the name is often non-trivial, particularly at the margins. Even within generally robust democratic systems, there exist distortions and imbalances which warp access to and exercise of power in favour of one group or another. There is even a pretty wide tolerance within which a democratically-elected government with a mandate to do so can fiddle with the levers, creating advantages for itself while not fundamentally rendering the system undemocratic. The authority of democracy is also not ironclad, it does not obtain outside the existing normative moral, ethical and legal frameworks of humanity; if 51% of an electorate decide it’s ok to slaughter all blue-eyed babies, it being democratically certified does not make such a provision legitimate. So in this way what I’m talking about it isn’t really democratic fundamentalism at all — there are sound arguments to be had all down the line about these and other factors, and indeed recognising and addressing the (many) limitations of democracy isn’t something to be shied away from.
The question of ultimate sovereignty also can’t be ignored. The ultimate authority for how a society ought to be configured rests with the people, and if this means that a government, democratically-elected or not, is acting egregiously counter to the electorate’s wishes in ways which democracy can’t fix, stronger medicine must sometimes be applied.
This is the reasoning the Tea Partiers claim when calling for Obama to be overthrown; and that Lindsay Perigo (now shilling for a noted authoritarian who is the parliamentary leader of a noted authoritarian party) appealed when he declared the Clark government illegitimate. But while some legitimate grievances exist(ed) in both cases, those calls were and are vexatious. In reality a stronger standard is needed to maintain the balance between democracy and ultimate sovereignty. Of course, in both cases the calls for insurrection came to nought — they were manifestly idiotic and consequently did not attract support; and moreover, in both cases subsequent democratic elections under the systems that both provocateurs claimed were invidious returned strongly in favour of the opposition parties, utterly disproving the assertion. In the New Zealand case, the incoming government repealed the offending Electoral Finance Act, doubling that proof (and then proceeded to enact something very substantively similar, to very scarce outrage from anyone).
Of course, this principle of the peoples’ sovereignty means the electorate can relinquish its power, vest it permanently or semi-permanently in some other mechanism of power. I’ll get the obvious out of the way now: this is what happened to the Weimar Republic; the existing democratically-legitimate rulers of Germany ceded their authority to Hitler, who enjoyed impunity from democratic censure (and, it must be said, who brilliantly exploited the constitutional arrangements of the republic to engineer the ongoing popular support for his cause and the ineffectuality of his opponents). What happened in the years following 1933 is an example of why a movement’s commitment to robust democracy must be treated as fundamental, but the ultimate recourse to power must remain with the people.
For me what it all really boils down to is the comment usually attributed to Tocqueville, that a democratic society gets the government it deserves. But this is both misattributed and misquoted — it was Joseph de Maistre, and the original quote omits ‘democratic’. The implication is that any society gets the government it deserves. A sham democracy exists because those governed by it do not demand more — more representation, more transparency, more robustness, more accountability. A dictatorship is such because its victims didn’t do enough to prevent one from becoming entrenched, or overthrow it once it had become entrenched. This is a harsh view, and strictly incorrect — there is little the Ukrainian peasantry of the Holomodor could have done to prevent their expurgation as a result of Stalin’s decrees, and nothing they did to deserve such a fate, for instance — but the essence of truth in the quote is generally that, in the final analysis, nobody has a greater responsibility or ability to ensure that their government carries out the wishes of the people it governs than the people themselves.